All photos by Timothy Norris
This is always how it goes. You survive concussive assaults of flying glowsticks, your lungs are barbequed, the inside of your nostrils are laced with dust, you’ve probably lost your wallet, phone, ID, and sense of self-respect, but then there’s that moment that allows you to willfully understand why you’d risk contamination from radioactive neon tank-tops.
This year, temporary salvation came in the form of Anderson .Paak, the 30-year old, Oxnard-raised soul atomizer, who was largely anonymous to the wristband rabble last year. It was the collective failure of almost everyone but him. If you spent any time around LA underground circles, it was clear .Paak possessed transformative gifts.
The ex-narcotic agriculturalist born Brandon Paak Anderson could drum like Questlove but with more swing, while effortlessly shifting gears from sinning preacher man soul to fiery rapping like a young Cee-Lo. He exhibited the sartorial creativity that made you wonder when a prospective Malcolm McLaren or Rico Wade would stop him on the street and ask how he could help make him a household name. His pin game was so strong that he probably could’ve made millions on Etsy if the music thing didn’t work out.
But the divide between the underground and the mainstream is a bizarre phenomenon. It’s a false construct and an often-impregnable line, one that in Los Angeles has slowly eroded over the last half-decade. You inevitably know why (the internet connects the threads, allows for the path from Soundcloud to stardom, roll your eyes here). But more often than not, only a co-sign opens people’s ears to the obvious.
Unless 2Pac and Biggie resurrected and recruited him to play the rap Roy Orbison in a new Traveling Wilbury’s-ish Super-Group, .Paak couldn’t receive a better endorsement than Dr. Dre. When Hip-Hop’s Headphone Asclepius conscripted the Ventura County native to star on last year’s Compton, it heralded his arrival. And after a half-decade of tedious grinding, he finally became an overnight celebrity.
Over the last six months, .Paak dropped a pair of EPs (one with Blended Babies, one on Stones Throw with Knxwldge) and a full-length album (Malibu). All received critical acclaim and inserted him alongside Miguel and Frank Ocean in the “Who’s The Best, Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas” conversation of modern-day LA soul.
SXSW has become such a corporate clusterfuck that it’s almost impossible to produce anything resembling consensus. But you couldn’t read a music publication last month without learning that .Paak’s SXSW sets had cured Zika, turned water into a wine-based sexual lubricant, and convinced even the most dedicated boom-bap fans to sell their backpacks in favor sleeveless vests.
So even though .Paak’s 8:30 PM Coachella set found him up against Sia, Beach House, Alessia Cara, and The Chainsmokers, it was the most anticipated of the night by anyone who doesn’t believe that Calvin Harris invented disco. It was also the best of the festival, a performance people will talk about until the molly and THC has mangled every last drop of long-term memory.
Look, I understand your skepticism. You’re reading this and wondering why it matters that a singer-turnt-rapper did something immediately legendary at a music festival that you probably weren’t at. Is there a purpose other than masochism, nourishing the #contentfarm or possibly to fuel excitement for week two (which I am told people attend).I don’t know if there’s an answer to that question, but I do know that if you care about music or at least have a sporadically working pulse, there was no way not to want to tell everyone to see Anderson .Paak as soon as they can, before the tickets get too expensive and you’re forced to watch the show alongside a bro wearing a “Thank You For Being A Slut” hat (who I should’ve murdered during the Hudson Mohawke set. I take this moment to apologize to everyone for not doing so).
If you want to understand the murky lines between LA worlds in 2016, consider that that the newest Aftermath artist came out to a Jonwayne song (“Green Light”) whose hook he crooned, backed by psychedelic visuals (courtesy of the great Dewey Saunders) that would shame Tame Impala or Panda Bear. At last August’s Low End Theory Festival, .Paak flexed the showmanship and chops to warrant the almost deafening hype. But over the last six months, he took that leap from rising star to the transcendence best expressed via emojis, exclamation mark, and shameless hyperbole.
So here we go: not since Outkast have I seen a Coachella performance that covered so much ground. In the course of the 50 minute set, .Paak and his bayonet-sharp backing band, The Free Nationals artfully brokered a peace between Sly & The Family Stone-style funk, teardrop Curtis Mayfield soul, bludgeoning Beat Scene bass music, acid rock, disco-house swampy Dungeon Family spiritual hip-hop, and even jammy Bonnaroo grooves.
.Paak slipped behind the drum kit to deliver a performance only topped at the festival by Ronald Bruner, Kamasi Washington’s drummer, Thundercat’s brother, and arguably the reigning greatest. He had Gary Clark Jr. deliver some guitar solos that would force Slash to go home and practice if he heard them. For the coup de grace, he brought out T.I. to perform, “Bring ‘Em Out” and “All About the Money.” There was no logical through-line there, but it managed to get thousands of people sing the line “I shine like the Reverend, I shoot at the Reverend,” which is God’s will.
Vividly re-imaging the songs from Malibu, .Paak entered full beast mode: scatting, gyrating, prowling around the stage, ripping off his jacket, sweating, and unleashing and flipping between raw odes to over-consumption to take me to church falsetto’s (no Hozier, never Hozier).The visuals unspooled sepia tinted photos of United Farm Worker protests, foregrounded by a women with glowing eyes and a blood-red bandanna. It was hard and haunting, with lyrics about cruising with the top down on PCH, desperately wanting Air Jordan’s as a child, his sister singing Whitney Houston in their old house in Oxnard, and the heaven and hell that is love.
He didn’t even play a single song from Compton. Those were wonderful performances, but they weren’t entirely his. On Sunday night, a few thousand people saw something that resembled a revelation, the sort of brilliance that redeems the chase, the dust, and the constant glow that always feels dim. Anderson .Paak did the hardest thing possible: he divined a new definition of soul music in a place that needed it desperately.
Jeff Weiss is going to sleep now. Follow him on Twitter.